The Resisting Reader. (Plenary Remarks).(conference on American Women Writers)
Fetterley, Judith, Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers
I began my work on nineteenth-century American women writers in January of 1980 during a semester sabbatical. The genesis of the decision to turn my attention away from what was then American literature and to look at texts that no one I knew considered worth reading or writing about was long and complex.
But I want to recall here one key generative moment. It was at the 1978 MIA, and I was lying in bed with Elaine Marks--we weren't lovers, we were just tired--and we were discussing our work. The Resisting Reader had just been published, and I was struggling with the question of what to do next. I had in mind a sequel to The Resisting Reader on the intersection of attitudes toward gender and attitudes toward language in what was then American literature, but I had also become interested in the category "women writers." "Judith," Elaine said, in a voice I wish I could imitate, "it's like coming out after years of dating and marriage. It won't be easy and it probably won't bring you as much professional success. But choose the women. IT WILL BE A LOT MORE FUN!"
And so I did and so it has been. Even planning the Hartford Conference was a lot of fun, as Joan Hedrick and I were recalling the other day here at this conference. I wish to go on record as speaking in defense of the value of having fun, and I hope all of you are having fun here and now. So much of the fun, of course, lies in the friendships that we form from and around our work. To recall another generative moment, I first met Joanne Dobson in the spring of 1980 in the basement of the SUNY/Albany library standing in line at the Xerox machine. She was clutching a volume that looked suspiciously like my own, and after stealing several furtive glances at each other--as if we had just discovered each other engaged in some subversive act or in some slightly shameful behavior (like kinky sex)--we began a conversation that has lasted to this day.
At the time I began my work on nineteenth-century American women writers, I knew no one who was working on this material. Meeting Joanne was like the experience of the king who "rules" an uninhabited planet in The Little Prince when the little prince arrives upon his planet, he is overjoyed for, as he puts it, "Voila, un subjet"--though for me, of course, the experience was that of "Voila, an intellectual companion, a collaborator."
Those were the days when in order to have access to the texts of nineteenth-century American women writers you had to xerox them. Those were the days before there were any reprints, any series. When I began my work, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of texts by nineteenth-century American women in print and available for classroom use. And those were the days when the only work by a nineteenth-century American woman to appear in the standard anthologies was the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Of course, those were also the days when you could buy first editions of Sedgwick and Stowe and Gary for $1, often less, if you had the patience to search out used bookstores and sort through their "trash."
More nostalgic still, from my perspective, those were the days when my university supported the costs of my research, and my xeroxing was charged to my department rather than subtracted from a piece of plastic I had to purchase from a vending machine. I did a lot of xeroxing, thanks to the generosity of my university and my department. Indeed, I have a whole file cabinet full of xeroxes of texts by nineteenth-century American women writers still not available in print. I hope someday that the SSAWW will establish a center with an archive where the fruits of these early labors may find a permanent home and continue to be useful.
Those were also the days before e-mail when it was possible to read books, lots of them. And those were the days when the project of recovery seemed intrinsically valuable and when it offered work sufficient for any single lifetime. Those were the days that for me produced the Rutgers American Women Writers series; the Northeast Nineteenth-century American Women Writers Study Group, a sort of proto SSAWW, and the 1996 Hartford conference, one of the predecessors for this conference. Those were the days that produced Provisions, the Norton Anthology of American Women Regionalists, and now finally Locating Regionalism, the critical book about the material contained in the Norton Anthology.
Those were the days when it was possible to have a plan and a map, to believe that you knew what needed to be done and the order in which it should happen, and to believe as well that you, understood collectively, could do it. Things are perhaps different now, not better or worse, but different; and if they are different, that is so precisely because of the work that emerged from this historical moment.
We have been asked to talk about one or two "moments" in our professional histories as "originators" of a "new field," moments that might serve as touchstones for our larger collective history. As one of my "moments," I would like to talk about the Rutgers University Press American Women Writers series, jointly edited by me, Joanne Dobson, and Elaine Showalter, and made possible by the conviction and efforts of Leslie Michener who believed in the series from the start and persuaded the press to undertake a project most of her colleagues considered risky and unprofitable.
The dream of the AWW series, whose volumes were published between 1986 and 1993 and imagined from the start as a closed set, was to provide in one collectible bookshelf all the significant texts of prose fiction produced by American women in the nineteenth century. Simply line them up in sequence and one could "read" the field. Actually read them and one would know everything she needed to know to be an "expert" in the field. A notable dream, I think, however innocent it may now seem. It was recovery made visible, existence proved by substance, volumes that could be held in the hand and offered up as proof that women writers had existed in nineteenth-century America.
I do not have time here to address the reasons for the series' emphasis on prose, though we did of course include one volume of poetry. But I would like to say a few words about the emphasis on the nineteenth century, particularly since it has come up in conversations about the content of this conference. In part this emphasis was the result of the fact that Joanne and I were both trained as specialists in nineteenth century American literature--those were the days, we should also recall, when graduate training focused on periods. But I believe it derived as well from the fact that the category "woman writer" has more valence for the nineteenth century than for earlier or later periods. Early American literature by itself forms a somewhat stigmatized subset of the larger field of American literature, and those who work on this material may well find that "early" is more productive of identity politics than "women." On the other hand, by the twentieth century, so runs the hope, women writers are sufficiently i ntegrated into the field of American literature that gender no longer serves as the primary diacritical mark, and categories such as "modernist" or "avant garde" emerge as more significant. But for the nineteenth century, then and now, the category "woman writer" remains productive of identity politics.
Moreover, we must remember that the American Women Writers series appeared in the late twentieth century and addressed a field constructed in the mid-twentieth century when the nineteenth century was the definitive period. Its texts became the basis of the American literature canon, and that canon was exclusively male. To change the map of American literature meant to change the map of the nineteenth century, and for this work, the category "woman writer" had immense political power. As the twenty-first century progresses, as the nineteenth century becomes increasingly "early" and the twentieth century increasingly canonical, that is, male, we may find our demographics changing as well.
Of course, the dream of the American Women Writers series was impossible from the start and for good reasons. By the time we put together the series, Rutgers had published a reprint of Phelps's The Story of Avis, Feminist Press had reprinted Warner's The Wide, Wide World and Phelps's The Silent Partner, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Little Women, and The Awakening were some of the few texts readily available, and the University of Pennsylvania Press had just brought out an edition of Stoddard's The Morgesons. And of course the dream was flawed from the start by its unproblematized commitment to the concepts of complete, entire, and whole, by its commitment to the concepts of a canon and the canonical. Moreover, the success of this dream, however noble, however flawed, depended upon the ability of the series editors to "know" what were and were not the most significant texts. In some cases this judgment has proven sound, in others not so sound. The series has had some notable busts as well as some notable triumphs. Some volumes have proven so successful that they have been co-opted by other presses; others have gone out of print already. The series has made a difference, even though its original dream may not have been realized.
I think--and here I imitate Virginia Woolf in that wonderful series of lectures that became A Room of One's Own-that it would be well worth the while of some of our younger colleagues to revisit this series--to examine the assumptions that went into its formation, to explore the implications of its successes and its failures, to analyze what it has to tell us about the project of recovery. For example, I think here in particular of the issue of genre. Naturally, it was a bleak day for me when Leslie Michener called to say that Rutgers would not reprint the AWW series volume of Alice Gary's sketches. How was it possible that Alice Gary, whom I consider to be among the best prose writers of the nineteenth century, male or female, could already be Out of print again?
The answer to this question is, of course, multiple and complex but certainly part of it derives from the problem of genre. The demise of the volume of Gary's sketches, as well as that of other volumes devoted to short fiction, provides evidence, if we need it, of the existence of a hierarchy of genres in American literature. The novel occupies the highest rung on the ladder of genres, the sketch form occupies one of the lowest. It was, after all, hardly accidental that Henry Louis Gates could turn Our Niginto a best seller simply by declaring it to be a novel rather than an autobiography or, heaven for-fend, a series of sketches. In part, of course, this hierarchy results from the contours of the academy, the primary site within which the project of recovery has occurred (another point worth examining). Most frequently, instructors choose, or are assigned, an anthology of American literature as their basic text; sometimes they may be able to supplement this anthology with a single additional text. And if the y also wanted to add a story by Alice Gary to their course, well, there's the Xerox machine, forget ordering the whole volume. Yet even if they were to choose Clovernook Sketches as their supplemental text, the difficulties of teaching such a text in the average American literature classroom would be immense. The repertoire of frames and values, of strategies for sequence and intertextual conversation, currently operative in the field and available for use by instructors cannot easily be applied to such a text, and thus it becomes a major pedagogical problem.
I have been told that my idea for a collection of essays, or a single- or multiple-authored book on the history, significance, and meaning of the AWW series is a bad one and that such a volume would certainly not sell. Personally, I disagree. I think it is a good idea, perhaps not as good an idea as the AWW series itself, but a good one nevertheless, and I hope someone will take it up.
I want to turn now, and far more briefly, to a second "moment" in my own professional history, one that perhaps addresses more directly the question of the toll this work has taken, the price it has exacted. The project of recovery that began so boldly in 1980 became rather quickly criss-crossed by contradiction, interrupted by crises of self-confidence, and frequently brought to a dead halt by the problems quite literally of how to speak--how to construct a voice, how to create a discourse, how to develop a frame, how to establish a point of view and mode of approach. The two major projects that I have completed recently--the essay in American Literature on Catharine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie and the critical book on American women regionalists--have been characterized by a pattern of starting and stopping and both have taken years to finish. My files contain hundreds of pages of two previous attempts at writing about regionalism, and my archives are littered with drafts of the essay on Hope Leslie. Both projec ts were finally completed because they would not leave me alone, they would not stop starting up again.
Perhaps I experienced this pattern because my goal was too ambitious. I wanted nothing less than to change the map of American literature so that women might be included in it as determinative and foundational. A goal this ambitious, however, comes entangled in its own contradictions; it threatens to take material that begins as oppositional and resistant and by its very success to reinscribe this material as just more of the same. To put it simply, if a minor and stigmatized text becomes major and revered, how can it continue to do the work of opposition and resistance? This is the "problem" of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, so eloquently addressed by Greg Jay in an article in Legacy a few years ago. Similarly, if one were to succeed in making a minor writer a major, even canonical, figure, would this success come at the cost of the minor writer's ability to do her real work, which rests precisely in being minor? This is the conundrum facing those of us who work on Jewett.
Moreover, a goal this ambitious spawns endless crises of self-confidence. 'Who, after all, am Ito think that I have the power to effect such change? But even were Ito believe, after several days on Prozac, that I had such power, how would I actually do it? It is difficult to imagine what could actually accomplish such a goal. For one immediately confronts the fact that the American remains intractably coded as male. As Nina Baym has so eloquently argued in "Melodramas of Beset Manhood," what makes a text American depends neither on language nor on nation nor on geography, but rather on ideology. The field comes into being and is held together by a magnetic force, the energy generated by the idea of the American. It is a jazzy concept. Feminism, as far as I can see, is not now and never has been jazzy, and neither are its projects. And if it requires such jazz to be American, the price may be too high, for what energizes the field of American literature has, at its heart, the erotics of the hypermasculine.
Audre Lorde has said that the master's tools can never dismantle the master's house. But it may also be true that without the master's tools we may find it difficult to construct a compelling alternative edifice. Many of the tools used to create the field of American literature have now themselves been dismantled--for example, the construct of the author, the approaches to reading defined as new criticism and thematic criticism. Yet when one considers the work those tools did, the building they constructed, one may legitimately wonder if anything less than those tools can effect a reconstruction of it. Those ploughshares have been turned into swords and are used against our work, but they are not turned upon the original building, which remains intact, as witness the permanence of Hawthorne. The storms of deconstructive theory may swirl around this building, but they will not share its foundation, for that foundation was built by tools the masters have destroyed, perhaps for very fear of the uses to which the y might be put.
In closing, let me say that I have chosen to make my remarks today more monitory than celebratory in part because of the historical moment I occupy. It has been fun, but it has also taken its toll. It is my deepest hope and dearest wish that those who now "come after" will have every bit as much fun as those of us who "went before" but will not have to pay so high a price.
I am thrilled to be here at this historical moment, still alive and still fighting. I know each of you joins me in thanking Sharon Harris and Susan Belasco, as well as all the others who have worked so hard to make this conference possible. It is a great moment, and we are deeply indebted to you. For the SSAWW, the result of the collaborative work of so many of the women and men in this room tonight, offers us the right location for asking and answering those questions still before us-- what is it we are after, and how are we going to get it?…
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Publication information: Article title: The Resisting Reader. (Plenary Remarks).(conference on American Women Writers). Contributors: Fetterley, Judith - Author. Journal title: Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers. Volume: 19. Issue: 1 Publication date: January 2002. Page number: 5+. © 2008 University of Nebraska Press. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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